"Caramel: Recipes for Deliciously Gooey Desserts," by Peggy Cullen

Pros: Photography, recipes, advice, table of contents, layout, everything…
Cons: Nothing!
Rating: 5 out of 5

First published 10/5/2004

Caramel.

The word itself is somehow lush and decadent. Smoky. There’s a velvety Suzanne Vega song called “Caramel” that I often think of when I hear it.

When I found out there was a cookbook called “Caramel: recipes for deliciously gooey desserts” from Chronicle Books, I immediately got a copy. One of my favorite flavors combined with one of my favorite cookbook publishers–how could I go wrong? As usual, Chronicle did not disappoint; cookbook author Peggy Cullen and food photographer Maren Caruso have served up one of the most decadent cookbooks since Marcel Desaulniers’ “Death by Chocolate” series.

The table of contents lists every recipe in the book, which makes it very easy to find what you’re looking for. It’s divided into the following sections:

  • Sweet talk
  • The basics and the extras
  • Fruit desserts
  • Ice cream desserts
  • Tarts, pastries, and pies
  • Fancy cakes, coffee cakes, and upside-down cakes
  • Custards, puddings, and mousse
  • Cookies and bars
  • Candy and confections
  • Ornaments and accessories

There’s only a handful of recipes under each heading. Chronicle includes a full-page full-color photo with many of the recipes, uses thick glossy paper that will stand up to some hard use (and is comparatively easy to clean when you splatter it), and puts a lot of work into things like layout and graphic design, so they tend to charge more for fewer recipes. They also seem to put a lot of work into making sure that the best recipes end up in their books. (Not all of their books follow this specific format, but many of them do.)

Personally I find their books to be worth the extra cost. After all, if you buy a book of 50 recipes and find 40 that wow you so much you’d make them again and again, you’re better off than if you bought a book of 100 and found 20.

Aesthetics

Normally I just don’t care what a cookbook looks like (with the functional exception of the recipe layout). I don’t care what colors are used unless they’re so ugly I can’t ignore them. Although photos of the foods are nice, I don’t mind their absence. However, I can’t help but stop and admire the prettiness of many Chronicle books. “Caramel” is beautiful. All of the colors used in the layout resemble different shades of caramelized sugar.

Paragraphs are set off distinctly from one another in recipes (as are sections of ingredients for different parts of a recipe), making it easy to figure out where you are and what you’re supposed to be doing.

And the photos… wow. If you like caramel, I dare you to look at these photos and try not to go into an all-out “I need sugar!” frenzy. While they are professional food photographer photographs, they’re also close-ups of very little other than the food, so it really is easy to see what it is you’re trying to make. Simple foods aren’t sculpted into works of art that you could never reproduce–they’re allowed to display a more natural beauty.

How-to

Since many Chronicle books tackle a very specific subject, they often start off with some basic how-to advice, such as notes about tools and equipment. This book is no different. It begins with the very basics of what caramel is and how it’s made, not to mention what it’s useful for, and some types of caramelization we might not have thought of:

From the golden crust of baked bread to the browned skin of roasted chicken, caramelization is responsible for many of the flavors we associate with cooking.

Here I have to stop for a moment to rave about something.

Caramelizing sugar can be tough. It can burn in seconds. It can seize up. It frightens many people; it made me nervous until I saw an episode of Alton Brown’s TV show “Good Eats” that dealt with the subject. Alton and food scientist Shirley O. Corriher explained lots of science about sugar crystals, the upshot of which is: include a little light corn syrup and your caramel won’t seize up. That simple.

So when I got my copy of “Caramel,” one of the first things I did was check whether or not this cookbook author knew that trick, or just expected you to do it the “normal” way. I figured it would be a good litmus test. Happily, the caramel recipe here calls for a few drops of lemon juice or a little light corn syrup; I was satisfied that the author knew her stuff.

The recipes

Of course, none of this matters if the recipes themselves don’t measure up. Sure, recipes in cookbooks from Chronicle Books always seem to have been thoroughly kitchen-tested, and I get the feeling they pick and choose the best recipes from among many rather than trying to fill space. But that’s no substitute for actually making the recipes. I’ve seen fabulous-looking cookbooks in which the recipes clearly weren’t adequately kitchen-tested; they had large mistakes and problems in them that only became clear through use.

I didn’t bother heading for the things I already knew I’d love if they were even halfway decent (creme caramel and creme brulee). I headed for the recipes that looked like challenges–ones I was a bit dubious about. After all, I inherently love caramel, so this cookbook has an unfair advantage when being judged. I had to find a harsher way of putting it to the test!

Like nut brittle. I’m really not all that fond of nuts in most recipes, and I find most nut brittle to be sickly-sweet and unappetizing. So we made a recipe of almond brittle. (Naturally. I must be a closet masochist.) It was… well, I’m not sure how to adequately explain how good it was. The stuff disappeared like smoke, and not just because my husband likes nuts more than I do. I could not stop eating it. If that isn’t enough to convince you, this recipe was simple to make. I fully intend to make some at Christmas-time to send in gift-packages.

[Note added 7/2006: Not only have I made batches of this brittle to send to friends on multiple occasions, but I have a friend who now requests that we make pecan brittle from this recipe whenever she visits.]

And there’s still more. Cullen includes notes on little differences when you use various types of nuts. She includes almonds, peanuts, pecans, pine nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, walnuts, almonds, and a “harvest brittle” mix.

But brittle isn’t the only thing we’ve tried, of course, or I’d hardly consider myself qualified to judge this cookbook. Neither I nor my husband particularly likes the taste of alcohol, and he isn’t all that fond of pears. So, once again we made something we weren’t so sure we’d like: pears poached in caramel-port syrup, made with more than three cups of port wine. Once again the cookbook won; we genuinely enjoyed it. I wouldn’t call it our favorite dessert ever, but that isn’t due to any fault on the author’s part; it’s a result of our own personal preferences. Someone who enjoys port would probably love this recipe.

There are plenty of other recipes, of course. They range from the elegant (fresh figs with caramel and creme fraiche) to the simple (caramel popcorn), time-consuming (chocolate-caramel crunch cake) to quick (caramel dessert sauce). There are classics like creme caramel, creme brulee, palmiers, buttercrunch toffee, cream caramels, and nut praline. There are also plenty of things I haven’t seen in other cookbooks: caramelized banana split-second sundae, caramel-roasted strawberry shortcakes, caramel crown bread pudding, pumpkin cake with caramel and cream cheese frosting, and chocolate souffle roulade with caramel whipped cream. (And oh, the caramel peach-bottom babycakes are wonderful!)

Extras

But hey, I’m still not done mentioning everything I love about this cookbook. The author includes plenty of variations in her recipes in exactly the format I love: at the end of a recipe she uses a bold heading to indicate the new recipe variation, and puts the direction and ingredient changes in there. This makes it easy to find the variations (they aren’t buried in the recipe body or opening comments), and greatly increases the utility of the cookbook.

She includes make-ahead tips, which is something else I love to see in cookbooks, particularly those that include the kind of dishes you might want to serve to guests (which this definitely is).

She also provides other tips and directions as needed. For example, she explains how to temper chocolate so that it will properly coat candies.

I can’t think of a single negative thing to say about this cookbook. I can’t think of anything that would make it useless to someone. Cooks who aren’t confident in the kitchen and prefer to keep things simple would find some of the recipes too complex, but even they could play with things like the nut brittle, caramel sauce and caramel popcorn. Some people might not be thrilled by the price-to-number of recipes ratio (there are roughly 50 recipes not including variations and decorations), but I think this book has a value that the flat number of recipes can’t convey.

Cullen demystifies caramel and turns it into something doable–even easy for more experienced cooks. And that’s pure, luxurious, delectable magic.


Chocolate Addict

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